June 1, 2011 / 8:57 PM / in 6 years

Ontario Conservatives prepare to seek power

<p>Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak's election platform named "changebook" sits on a table before he speaks to the economic community at a club luncheon in Toronto, June 1, 2011. REUTERS/Mark Blinch</p>

TORONTO (Reuters) - The Conservative opposition in Canada’s most populous province is gearing up for the October election, promising to cut taxes, pay more on health and education, and still wipe out a budget gap.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, in opposition since 2004, wants to scrap a C$7 billion green energy plan fund and eliminate subsidies for small-scale production of wind and solar power.

It says it will lower taxes for businesses and for middle-income families, but cut overall spending on provincial programs even as it offers more money for popular initiatives like healthcare and education.

“Surprise new taxes have taken repeated bites out of the family budget, expensive experiments are driving up our hydro bills and private sector job creation has stalled,” party leader Tim Hudak told an enthusiastic business audience in Toronto, Canada’s financial capital.

“This government has dug itself into a historic budget hole and refuses to relinquish the shovel.”

Hudak’s Conservatives are about seven points ahead of the ruling Liberals in a recent opinion poll, putting them in a strong position ahead of the election.

Victory would complete a Conservative hat-trick in Toronto, which is also Ontario’s capital city.

Toronto last year elected populist Rob Ford as city mayor, and the federal Conservatives picked up seats in the province as they won power in a May 2 federal election, even ousting the former federal Liberal leader from his Toronto riding.

Hudak, a career politician and trained economist, is also an avid social networker who calls his plan “Changebook.”

He hopes to capitalize on voter resentment over a new harmonized sales tax, surging energy bills and generous public sector wage increases.

Ontario’s deficit for 2011-12 is currently seen at C$16.3 billion, which the Liberals plan to eliminate by 2017-18. Hudak says he can do better than that, but critics say his outline, presented on the weekend, lacks detail.

Ontario, which relies heavily on manufacturing and the auto sector, was the hardest hit Canadian province during the global downturn, prompting rating agency downgrades in 2009.

Last week, Fitch Ratings revised its outlook on the province to negative from stable, citing challenges in balancing the budget by 2018.

“It’s disappointing, it’s not surprising,” Hudak told reporters after the luncheon speech. “We just cannot continue on this path of trying to be all things to all people and spending money on every problem under the sun.”

Reporting by Claire Sibonney; editing by Janet Guttsman

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